Below the headlines: CBW matters (17)

(A weekly digest from the internet on chemical and biological warfare issues. Emphasis is on incidents and perspectives, but inclusion of an item does not equal endorsement or agreement with the contents. This issue covers items collected between 5 – 11 June 2017.)

CBW disarmament

  • Buckley hosts intricate Chemical Weapon Convention Treaty training exercise (Nicholas Rau, 8 June 2017): Over the course of three intense training days, Buckley Air Force Base hosted a unique and carefully planned Chemical Weapon Convention Treaty training exercise to test the response of Air Force Major Command Base Assistance Teams in preparation of any possible international challenge inspection.

CW use

  • NYT’s New Syria-Sarin Report Challenged (Robert Parry, 7 June 2017): Special Report: An MIT national security scientist says the New York Times pushed a “fraudulent” analysis of last April’s “sarin” incident in Syria, part of a troubling pattern of “groupthink” and “confirmation bias.”  For U.S. mainstream journalists and government analysts, their erroneous “groupthinks” often have a shady accomplice called “confirmation bias,” that is, the expectation that some “enemy” must be guilty and thus the tendency to twist any fact in that direction. It doesn’t even seem to matter how well-credentialed the skeptic is or how obvious the failings of the mainstream analysis are. So, you even have weapons experts, such as Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who are ignored when their judgments conflict with the conventional wisdom.
  • Agency: IS target civilians with chemical weapons in Mosul’s Zanjili (Mohamed Mostafa, 7 June 2017): Islamic State militants used chemical weapons in their current battles with Iraqi forces around western Mosul’s Old City, their last stronghold in the region, causing civilian injuries, a news report said Wednesday.

Other CBW-related incidents

  • U.S.-led forces appear to be using white phosphorus in populated areas in Iraq and Syria (Thomas Gibbons-Neff, 9 June 2017): The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria appears to have used white phosphorus-loaded munitions on at least two occasions in densely populated areas of Mosul and in the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, according to videos posted online and human rights groups. The often-controversial munitions are common in western militaries and are used primarily to create smoke screens, though they can also be dropped as an incendiary weapon. When a white phosphorus shell explodes, the chemical inside reacts with the air, creating a thick white cloud. When it comes in contact with flesh, it can maim and kill by burning to the bone.
  • US-led coalition warplanes ‘shower IS’ Syria bastion Raqqa with white phosphorus’ (New Arab, 9 June 2017): US-led coalition warplanes have used white phosphorus munitions in the Islamic State group’s Syrian bastion of Raqqa, endangering the lives of civilians, local activists have said. The aircraft reportedly dropped the incendiary substance, which if used in the vicinity of civilian concentrations can be considered a war crime, over the city on Thursday, the activist-run Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently claimed.

CBW threats

  • Synthetic Biology and the Chem/Bio Threat (Steven Aftergood, 30 May 2017): Synthetic biology, a set of technologies related to the design and fabrication of biological systems, poses an emerging hazard but also provides the tools to mitigate that hazard, according to a new DoD report to Congress on defense against chemical and biological (CB) weapons. The new report “assesses DoD’s overall readiness to fight and win in a CB warfare environment.”

Dual-use technologies

  • Crispr’s Next Big Debate: How Messy Is Too Messy? (Megan Molteni, 4 June 2017): When it comes to Crispr, the bacterial wünderenzyme that allows scientists to precisely edit DNA, no news is too small to stir up some drama. On Tuesday morning, doctors from Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Iowa published a one-page letter to the editor of Nature Methods—an obscure but high-profile journal—describing something downright peculiar. About a year ago, they used Crispr to edit out a blindness-causing genetic defect in mice, curing two of their cohort. Later, they decided to go back and sequence their genomes, just to see what else Crispr did while it was in there. A lot, it turned out. With their method, the researchers observed close to 2,000 unintended mutations throughout each mouse’s genome, a rate more than 10 times higher than anyone had previously reported. If that holds up, Crispr-based therapies are in for some serious trouble. No one wants to go in for a vision-restoring treatment, only to wind up with cancer because of it.
  • The illusion of control in germline-engineering policy (Harald König, 7 June 2017): The arrival and rapid adoption of the clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)–CRISPR-associated protein 9 (Cas9) system1 has sparked ethical and societal controversy around genome editing of the human germline. Here, I point out the fallacy that such technologies and their applications can be globally prohibited on the basis of universal ethics and bans—the so-called ‘illusion of control’. A look at previous technological developments suggests instead that differentiated and multi-faceted approaches that take into account the broadest range of possible ethical and social issues would be preferable for the oversight of CRISPR–Cas9 germline engineering. Such an approach would not only be more effective but also ensure that society has the greatest chance of capitalizing on potential opportunities of the technology.
  • Synthetic Biology: Step by Step Towards its Democratization (Daniela Quaglia, 9 June 2017): As an enthusiast and synthetic biology practitioner, what attracts me most of our field is how fast is spreading and how people from different domains start to ask questions and to get interested in what we do. In the past year, I’ve heard over and over the word ‘democratization’ of synbio, which is the idea of making synthetic biology (and science in general) more available and understandable to the lay public. This certainly is no easy task. In fact, people wonder if it is even possible, and if it is, how do we do it? While only time will give definitive answers to these questions, today I would like to tell you the story of Julie Legault and her company Amino Labs: ‘The company pioneering accessible bioengineering in the home and school’.
  • Gene Editing Companies Hit Back at Paper That Criticized CRISPR (Antonio Regalado, 9 June 2017): Two gene-editing companies are hitting back at a scientific publication that caused their stocks to plummet last week, calling it wrong, filled with errors, and saying it shouldn’t have been published. In separate letters sent to Nature Methods, scientists from Intellia Therapeutics and Editas Medicine criticized a report in the journal that claimed the gene-editing tool CRISPR had caused unexpected mutations in the genomes of mice and which cast a shadow over efforts to initiate human studies using the technique. Nessan Bermingham, CEO of Intellia, called for the journal to retract the paper, effectively an effort to remove it from the scientific record.

History

  • Influenza: A viral world war (Tilli Tansey, 8 June 2017): The 1918 influenza pandemic probably infected one-third of the world’s population at the time — 500 million people. It killed between 50 million and 100 million; by contrast, Second World War deaths numbered around 60 million. Why is this catastrophe not better remembered? Science journalist Laura Spinney reflects on this conundrum and the nature of historical memory in her impressive Pale Rider. She concludes that the pandemic is largely known as small, personal tragedies, not as a collective record. Eschewing a linear narrative, she has modelled her account loosely on Talmudic scholarship, in which layers of commentary are added to a text in expanding circles. The pandemic is central, but intersecting stories radiate out — reflections on medical practice, scientific research, town planning, religious beliefs, political systems, and ideas and practices on disease containment, right up to today’s catastrophe modelling amid concerns about AIDS, Zika and Ebola.
  • LETTER: Facts don’t back smallpox scheme (Earle Lockerby, 8 June 2017): Jeffery Amherst had nothing to do with smallpox-contaminated blankets in relation to the Mi’kmaq or any aboriginal group in the area now known as the Atlantic Provinces. What he did in 1763, five years after leaving Cape Breton following the capture of Louisbourg, was to suggest to a subordinate, Henry Bouquet, that the latter arrange for smallpox-contaminated blankets to be distributed to the Shawnee and Delaware aboriginal peoples in Pennsylvania. There is no evidence that Bouquet actually did such, but others apparently borrowed the idea and independently did so.

CB security and safety

  • American Chemistry Council updates PPE, hygiene guidelines for phosgene (Safety and Health Magazine, 7 June 2017): The American Chemistry Council recently released updated guidelines on preventive health measures and the use of personal protective equipment for workers exposed to phosgene, a chemical used in manufacturing that is a poisonous gas at room temperature.

CBW defence, protection and preparedness

  • Cuts to US bioterror funds risk peril in event of attack (Daniel M. Gerstein, 6 June 2017): President Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget would eliminate a Department of Homeland Security laboratory dedicated to countering bioterrorism and providing the science behind response and recovery efforts should an attack occur.
  • Simulated terror attack on bay tests local emergency response (Filipa Ioannou, 7 June 2017): Firefighters, medics and FBI agents swarmed a normally quiet stretch of the Alameda waterfront next to the USS Hornet Museum on Wednesday morning, maneuvering around people lying on the ground as an ominous orange smoke filled the air and brightly colored emergency vehicles crowded the road. The alarming scene was part of a two-day exercise called “Operation Seasick” — six months in the making and organized by the FBI — to practice how local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies and emergency responders would work together in the event of a complex terror attack involving weapons of mass destruction in an area like the Port of Oakland.
  • Anthrax drill teaches people how to protect citizens (Alison Kaiser, 7 June 2017): The Randolph-Elkins Health Department held a full-scale threat preparedness exercise at the Phil Gainer Community Center. The event tested how prepared people would be to protect citizens from an anthrax attack.
  • UNMC’s Global Center for Health Security (Karla James, 7 June 2017): The University of Nebraska Medical Center is a leader in infectious diseases and biodefense research and the Board of Regents voted to coordinate that expertise under one umbrella by establishing the Global Center for Health Security. Their biocontainment unit served the country and the world well during by treating patients with Ebola in 2014.  Associate Vice Chancellor for Basic Science Research Dr. Ken Bayles says a lot has happened at the hospital since then.
  • Detecting and preventing the use of chemical weapons (HSN, 8 June 2017): Like detectives looking for clues, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have been working for nearly a decade on ways to identify the “fingerprints” of potential chemical threats. The ability to identify a particular agent and attribute its source is key to responding to and even preventing these threats.
  • New fabric coating could neutralize chemical weapons, save lives (HSN, 8 June 2017): Chemical weapons are nightmarish. In a millisecond, they can kill hundreds, if not thousands. But, in a new study, scientists report that they have developed a way to adhere a lightweight coating onto fabrics that is capable of neutralizing a subclass of these toxins — those that are delivered through the skin. The life-saving technique could eventually be used to protect soldiers and emergency responders.

Industry matters

  • US Biodefense Market Outlook 2022 (ReportsWorldwide, 7 June 2017): ReportsWorldwide has announced the addition of a new report title US Biodefense Market Outlook 2022 to its growing collection of premium market research reports. The report “US Biodefense Market Outlook 2022” unfolds the market scenario of the US BioDefense market. The report provides an overview of the Biodefense market with respect to biological defense. It further gives a detailed analysis of its sub-segment, with an in-depth study of the Biodefense market scenario prevalent in the country.
  • Synthetic Biology: Next Wave of Disruption for Industrialization of Biology (Gigi Kwik Gronvall, 8 June 2017): Synthetic biology—a relatively new field that aims to make biology easier to engineer—is quietly disrupting traditional manufacturing methods, leading to the industrialization of biology and a global market estimated to be worth $11.4 billion by 2021 with the potential to expand at a 24 percent clip through 2021.
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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.